I have a confession to make.
Last night, I got lost in the stacks. I hear your gasps of horror from here. I know, I know, Librarian shaming all around!
In my defense it was the end of the day. And the elevators were down….And most of our stairwells are closed…And some of the stacks are closed off due to the construction…And the call number of the book I was looking for was literally in the last, dark, twisty corner in the whole place…
I know, I know…excuses, excuses.
But seriously…have you ever been to a library where there is a major construction project going on?
Where you don’t have basic things like, say, heat and air conditioning?
Where there’s drilling and pounding and alarms going off frequently?
Because I’ve lived it for the last two years. Really, the last five years.
And for my institution, it’s been the last ten years.
Can you imagine working in a library where you don’t even have temperature control? Especially in the tropics?
When I was on campus at the University of Pittsburgh and visited Hillman Library for the first time, I nearly cried. I haven’t had the pleasure of using a fully functioning academic library in years.
I currently work for the Tulane University Libraries and most people know that Hurricane Katrina devastated us ten years ago. What most people don’t know is that we are still recovering from it.
When I started working here five years ago, I knew there would be challenges. I manage the Acquisitions department and both through my own research, my interview and just being familiar with the infrastructure of New Orleans, I knew that part of my job was going to be helping with the recovery process. I also knew that the office itself wasn’t going to be fun.
I was asked right off the bat if I could deal with extreme temperatures.
Have you ever seen a pair of these before?
Just a pair of finger-less gloves? Wait, what are all those wires?
These are electrically heated gloves that plug into the USB port of your computer. Think of them like an electric blanket, except for your hands…imagine what you might start thinking when these are a standard issued piece of office equipment given to you on your first day of work for office temperatures in the winter. Think I’m kidding?
This was me sometime last January. Wearing full winter gear to survive the 50 degrees of my office all day. Some of you up North may laugh. 50 degrees? Up here we wear short sleeves in 50 degrees!
If you’ve never worked a full day, indoors, in 50 degrees, that you don’t know how draining and exhausting it truly is. And this is a regular occurrence in the winter months.
Another piece of standard office equipment these days, are a pair of these:
Industrial strength! To combat all of the noises of the construction going on around us.
And personal discomfort aside…none of this comes close to what happened to the library during Hurricane Katrina and directly thereafter.
There’s an infamous story down here. The day after Hurricane Katrina hit, then university president Scott Cowen walked Tulane’s campus and said, “Thank God! It could have been so much worse!” The next day, the levees broke and the campus flooded and it was worse.
This was the front of the library:
The basement was flooded by eight feet of water. We had three collections in the basement that had to be drained and sorted.
Can you imagine dealing with this?
When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was working on my undergraduate degree. I remember seeing the images of the disaster and watching the news. I was horrified just like the rest of America, but for the most part, it was so far removed from my life that it really couldn’t touch me. It never occurred to me that it would have such a huge impact on both my personal and professional lives.
Our recovery has been really amazing and that’s mostly due to the dedicated staff who were here to immediately deal with what had happened. I can only imagine what our staff faced the day they came back and found what the flooding had left behind.
Amazingly enough, the first conference held in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was the American Library Association’s. They braved the still devastated city and brought business back to us. A few years ago, ALA came back and several library organizations who were coming to the conference asked the Tulane libraries to give a presentation on what we did to deal with the recovery from the flooding. The Head of Technical Services and the Head of Database management put a presentation together and showed it to us before taking it off to the conference. By the time that presentation was over with, our Head of Technical Services had to walk out in tears and none of us remained dry eyed after seeing all the pictures. And that was six years after the fact, so imagine what it must have been like on day one and two and three…we lost so much in Hurricane Katrina and the last ten years has been a daily fight to recover.
Assistant Dean, Andy Corrigan, wrote this article about the recovery process – With A Bucket of Extremes: Saving an ARL-Size Library Collection in New Orleans With the help of a company called Belfor Restoration, we were able to recover an amazing amount of the materials that were trapped for days underwater. As Andy says in the article: “The collective damage to academic library collections in New Orleans has also been enormous and very likely also without precedent on domestic soil” (Corrigan 84).
While we have officially replaced the actual library materials and once more become a functioning ARL library, we are still dealing with the long term consequences of the flood.
Our Head of Technical Services, Donna Cook, recently put a ten year anniversary exhibit together for the library about the recovery process. You can see it here!
In order to help us rebuild, FEMA is currently funding a project that adds two whole new stories to our building. There is no way to waterproof our basement and it just isn’t feasible to use it for collections again. So, for the last two years, we have lived in a building that is having two entirely new floors added to it. We’ve had to move entire collections, move offices, cover stacks in plastic, had major roof leaks that caused damage and many other crazy flood/construction related issues. And yes, created an environment where just walking through the stacks is like attacking a new labyrinth meant to fool you, day after day.
So needless to say, as prepared as I thought I was for working at the Howard Tilton Memorial Library, nothing could have really prepared me for what life was going to be like here.
And it goes beyond the obvious issues. Yes, we lost physical things, physical space, but the people here also survived something that most people can only imagine. Whether they were here for the storm or returned afterwards, this is the sort of event that marks you for the rest of your life. My staff have stories about losing everything they owned, about living with family for months out of state, about what it was like to come back to the library and deal with things like the smell of mold that lasted for months and not knowing if they were going to lose jobs and paychecks. They have stories about knowing people who died, and about the squalor they endured after surviving both Katrina and hurricane Rita, which hit a short time later.
I have learned so much in my time at the Tulane University libraries, things that I probably would never learn anywhere else. And it hasn’t been all doom and gloom, just like with any tragedy, there are as many amazing things that have come out of the flooding as there are terrible things. The sheer perseverance of those who have been here all of this time is a lesson in and of itself.
Last month we got back a functioning HVAC unit and have actual air control again, so hopefully I never have to use those gloves again.
This afternoon I am going to go on a tour of the two new floors which are expected to be finished sometime in December.
Last week, Dean Lance Query, who was here through all of it, finally retired after having promised to see the recovery through to the end. He’s still around too, stuffed up in a study carrel somewhere to make sure the final details are finished to his high expectations.
Our students and patrons have been largely understanding and have worked with us to accommodate the inconveniences of working in a library that is dealing with all of these things.
I am proud to have been a part of HTML’s recovery process, and I am super lucky to have gotten to work with the number of amazing librarians and staff members who have been really the main reason we are still here. And as uncomfortable as it’s been, this is a place like no other and I would not have changed the discomfort and upset for the world.
And it’s important to remember, that the Tulane Libraries were not the only libraries affected by Katrina. Every library down here suffered, all have had to recover and rebuild since the storm.
We have been particularly lucky in having the resources to rebuild; not everyone has.
In the end, the New Orleans’ libraries are still here, still going strong, still working to build community and to provide services and materials to our patrons.
I think that’s pretty remarkable.
So the next time you’re sitting in your library, take a minute to appreciate the space around you. I’ve seen and experienced first hand what it’s like when you lose it and how hard it is to recover it. While I hope I never have to work in a library that is dealing with these issues ever again, after my time here, I know that recovery is possible and that’s something we should all remember. The physical space may be damaged, but the heart of the library is not even its collections, it’s the people. And while they are still here, so is the library.
To Read More about the Tulane Libraries and Katrina, check out:
Hurricane Katrina and the Library’s Collections
Tulane Libraries Recovery Center
The “Landmark Undertaking” of the Tulane Libraries Recovery Center
LAC Group Helps Tulane University Libraries Mark Hurricane Katrina 10th Anniversary